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Reviewer note: I’m including a slightly re-edited version of my original Rambo review here for the feature section. I’ve added a bit in the last paragraph concerning the specifics of this extended edition. Otherwise my thoughts on the film itself really haven’t changed in the last few years.

Feature


I’m going to make a lot of statements in this review that will sound invariably negative. I want to be clear here and now that I genuinely liked Rambo, probably more then any other movie in the series. The twist is that I may like it for reasons I’m not sure were entirely intended by director, writer and star Sylvester Stallone. Rambo isn’t exactly a ‘so bad it’s good’ feature—Stallone has crafted his action tightly, and despite his simplified logic and plot the film elicits an emotional response.

 Rambo: Extended Edition
My enjoyment here is simple and visceral—I like graphic, stylized movie violence, and I like unvarnished movie vengeance—but my respect goes somewhat deeper. Rambo is effectively an independent film, and the closest we’ve gotten to a real deal ‘70s exploitation in a long time. The classic grindhouse has found its way into the modern public’s pop knowledge and lexicon in the last ten years, but most of the new films derived from the original films are homage rather then genuine. Films like Kill Bill, Grindhouse, The Devil’s Rejects, and Haute Tension are call backs and send-ups, which quote and respect the grindhouse, but are so distinct in their homage and subversion that they don’t generate the same effect. The ‘torture porn’ subgenre, specifically the Saw films ( Hostel, is too steeped in homage), kind of cover things for horror, but action films have sort of defaulted into a mess of CG spectacle (a different kind of exploitation film), and have generally lacked that punch drunk grit since the end of the 1980s.

Rambo is basically the same movie as Rambo III (the order of these films is something I hope to never explain to my grandmother). Stallone has taken the old genocide America was ignoring, that of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and replaced it with a new and more relevant genocide America is ignoring, that of Burma, which surprisingly enough has become more relevant since the film was released in theatres this past January. If there had been call for a Rambo film in the Clinton era my guess is that he would’ve taken a trip to Mogadishu. John Rambo is in the exact same place he was in Rambo III, Thailand, avoiding America, and he’s given another chance to make a difference, which he really doesn’t want to take. This time he doesn’t entirely avoid responsibility, he takes the missionaries where they want to go, but he finds himself in the same situation in the end where he has to run into a war zone and save some people. He’s even given a trinket by a pretty girl.

 Rambo: Extended Edition
Stallone isn’t subtle about anything this time around. There’s no room for gray shades in this film, there’s simply no time for them. The whole thing is streamlined to the point of sprinting (the entire film, minus credits, is about an hour twenty), and the dialogue is the first thing to go. In the grindhouse tradition we’re told as much as we can be through simple and relatively wordless scenes that speak their volumes as plainly as possible. Sometimes Stallone oversteps his glorious simplicity by not knowing when enough is enough, especially when jack hammering the point on his villains. We get that these guys are bad from the first scene, and we’re clear on their intentions from their second scene, adding a short sequence that makes the lead baddie’s sexual tastes clear (little boys) is unnecessary, and ends up straining the suspension of disbelief because of its cartoony nature.

However, the cartoony nature is what makes this decent action thriller with oversimplified morals and narration a memorable romp into grindhouse, the likes of which we really haven’t seen since Italians like Antonio Margheriti and Umberto Lenzi tried to mimic the success of the original Rambo movie, First Blood. Rambo is the bloodiest action film I’ve seen in a long time (averaging 2.59 killings per minute), and its R-rated achievement is pretty shocking. Stallone has obviously been watching a lot of movies since 1988, specifically successful war films like Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Scott’s [/i]Black Hawk Down[/i], and he’s remembered his lessons well. The director runs into some problems with the tone of his graphic bloodshed, which is occasionally genuinely impacting, but more often mawkishly sentimental, or really, really funny. This marks a problem for Stallone’s intended tone (I’m assuming), but it actually makes for a more entertaining film. Tonal intent aside, the action is shot and cut with expert precision I frankly never knew Stallone had in him.

 Rambo: Extended Edition
There are some bits that just don’t work, and stand out as uneven filmmaking, like the factoid spewing merc trip up the river, where Stallone tries to fill in the characters and regional historical facts via a jumble of exposition. I could take out my bleeding heart liberal card and complain about the simplified storytelling, and politics toll on the film’s race relations (the Virgin Mary treatment of the film’s sole white woman is a teeny tiny bit suspect), but that’s mostly beside the point when dissecting a film like this (lord knows the Italians were racist as all hell when they took to making this kind of flick), and even the most overly sensitive among us have to admit that running the narrative through Western eyes makes the streamlined pacing work. This is largely a vanity project, made by a man in his 60s (Rambo doesn’t take off his shirt in this one) who’s once illustrious career has been on the outs for decades. This all should be taken into account when dealing with the film in a realistic critical manner. It comes down to the audacity, the truly independent nature, and the fact that we really have to respect this guy for getting things done this efficiently. If there were a real Rambo I'm sure he’d be proud.

So what’s different about this extended version? The title for one. The screen now reads John Rambo, even if the Blu-ray cover does not. There are a few brief extended moments sprinkled throughout, including Rambo’s snake hunting buddies mucking about with a cobra on his boat, two additional scenes of Julie Benz begging Rambo to help her people get to Burma, more footage between the missionaries and Rambo aboard his boat, footage of Benz’s bloody foot, and a few other bits I’m sure I missed. Most of these are available as deleted scenes on the old Blu-ray, and frankly the movie moves better without them, even if Benz' character suffers a bit. I also noticed that the film now opens with Rambo hunting snakes and being generally peaceful, while the early villager massacre is moved to a slightly later place in the timeline. Stallone has slightly tweaked a few stylistic moments too, specifically the use of white-outs at the ends of Rambo’s nightmares. There’s no additional gore or violence that I noticed, which makes sense, as Stallone himself verified in the old release’s extras that the MPAA did not require any cuts for the original R-rating.

 Rambo: Extended Edition

Video


I did my best to compare this extended edition release with the original Blu-ray release, but the lack of multiple Blu-ray players, and screen cap software hampered my efforts a bit. From what my eyes can tell the two transfers are more or less identical. There’s theoretically room for improvement, but I’m pretty sure that any noticeable ‘problems’ derive from the source material, and the intended raw look. The film was shot in Super 35 film, which leads to quite a bit of fine grain, and an effectively ‘old fashion’ look. The stock also doesn’t always handle sharp contrast as well as others (re: more expensive anamorphic stock), but even the darkest moments here are discernable, and the black levels are plenty deep. The grain is actually a welcome sign in my book, and I’m happy to say Lionsgate hasn’t DNR’d any of it away. I caught a handful of film artefacts, but saw no signs of compression save the most minor edge-enhancement in some of the widest wide shots. The depth of field isn’t quite as detail rich as some other recent releases, but there’s very little lost in the large scope jungle shots. Glen MacPherson’s slim and effective cinematography deals in a lot of handheld shots and quick cuts, and large sections of the film take place both under cover of night and in torrential downpour, so there are plenty of minor detail inconsistencies. Overall, however, sharpness is impressive, fine, close-up details are impossibly lifelike, and colours are vibrant (check out the red smoke during the prison camp rescue). The consistent smoky nature of most daylight sequences (apparently the Thai’s have a ‘burning season’) could’ve led to problems, but largely doesn’t, save some slightly less lush than real life greens.

The previous release of the non-extended version of the film featured some jittery shutter work around the 40 to 45 minute mark (Chris Gould verified in his review that the UK release featured the same problem). I was never sure if this was an intended side-effect. Perhaps Stallone was trying to evoke some of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan look by increasing contrast. This new transfer is still a little weird in terms of shutter speed, but doesn’t jitter in the same matter, which I suppose marks the one minor improvement between releases.

 Rambo: Extended Edition

Audio


This 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix also matches the original release overall, which is another way of calling it pretty much perfect. There are huge dynamic changes from scene to scene, but nothing I’d call down time. Even the most simple dialogue sequence is sonically impressive thanks to the bass differences between Stallone’s voice, and just about every other actor’s voice, along with consistent ambient jungle noise, and Brian Tyler’s musical score. The music, which is somewhat derivative of Jerry Goldsmith’s original First Blood score, has a slightly synthesized sound on occasion, but is warm, sharp, and features some punchy LFE percussion. The more aggressive effects are among the best you’re likely to hear out of your system. Each gunshot has its own distinct sound. Small arms fire pops, machine guns vibrate the LFE, and that 50-caliber bad boy punches you in the gut with every shot. The climatic battle easily qualifies as reference level material, and the big boy bomb is among the loudest things I’ve ever heard on at a safe volume level. There certainly isn’t any compression here. Directional effects are immersive, especially the rainy night rescue scene, which features consistent and realistic surround rain effects, some of the biggest musical cues, and brutal sniper shots.

 Rambo: Extended Edition

Extras


The theatrical release Blu-ray featured plenty of solid extra features, specifically Stallone’s director’s commentary. Ideally Lionsgate would include both versions of the film, and all the original extras with this release, but they’ve gone the non-inclusive route, which some collectors will probably prefer since each release is unique. This disc features only one extra, technically speaking, but ‘ Rambo: To Hell and Back – Director’s Production Diary’ (1:23:30, SD) is a pretty decent addition to the behind the scenes story. The production diary is made up of a whole bunch of raw, on-set footage, split up by shooting day (not every day is covered), with most of the focused placed on filming action, and the general blue collar feel of the filming. Stallone’s family visit on the day he eviscerates the big bad is an amusing highlight. The footage has sound, but most of the audio is devoted to Stallone’s commentary. The commentary goes a long way in making the footage easier to absorb, and is a solid companion piece to the original feature commentary, despite a little bit of overlap. The disc also features a few Lionsgate trailers.

 Rambo: Extended Edition

Overall


I really love this movie. It’s not quite the perfect mix of entertainment and political comment Stallone intended it to be, but there have been few more entertaining, R-rated action movies since its initial release. This extended edition isn’t a must own, in my book, unfortunately. The reinstated footage can basically all be seen on the old Blu-ray’s deleted scenes, and slightly hampers the film’s otherwise impeccable pacing. And even those that prefer this longer cut won’t be able to replace that old disc since this one doesn’t include the same extras, specifically not the ace director’s commentary. On the other hand, the production diary footage included with this release is worth seeing. The film's biggest fans are likely going to find themselves forced to own both releases. The A/V qualities are pretty much identical.

I also got a copy of the new Rambo: Complete Collection Blu-ray set. I didn’t bother with a full review since the discs included are exactly the same as the ones I reviewed here and here. I should probably note that this repackaging includes the original theatrical release version of Rambo only.

*Note: The images on this page are taken from the original theatrical release (which looks the same, so far as I can tell), and re-sized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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